Tag Archives: maritime

Treasure Shipyard Relics Park, Nanjing, China

By Di Lu

In addition to the Silk Road that connected the East and the West in antiquity, the great Chinese mariner Zheng He (鄭和) also pioneered the “Maritime Silk Road” that acted as a link between China and Africa in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The starting point of this route was Nanjing, China, where there are shipyard relics surviving through hundreds of years. In July, 2005, the Treasure Shipyard Relics Park had been built on the basis of three extant shipbuilding docks through the joint efforts of archaeologists and local government, enabling modern people to get a glimpse of the forepassed magnificent spectacle.

One of the three extant shipbuilding docks
One of the three extant shipbuilding docks, by Di Lu

 On 11 July, 1405, Zheng He started his first of seven voyages by leading a royal fleet of hundreds of gigantic ships which carried as many as around 28,000 followers. His large fleet departed from the Treasure Shipyard, Longjiang (today’s Xiaguan district in Nanjing), sailing for the Western Pacific countries. During the following 28 years Zheng He dedicated the rest of his life to marine navigation until he died on the return journey in 1433, aged 62. Unfortunately, the Great Ming Empire permanently banned such government-sponsored navigation activities subsequent to the time when the brave crewmen arrived in Nanjing and completed the final voyage on 22 July, 1433. Meanwhile, the Treasure Shipyard, which was the world’s largest shipyard at that time (specifically constructed to build ships for Zheng He’s voyages), was soon shut down and abandoned. Thereafter the seafaring enterprise declined drastically in imperial China together with the shipbuilding industry.

However, the true purpose of these voyages and the reason why the government totally banned shipping are still wrapped in profound mystery. In academic circles of Chinese history, there are several theories about their true purpose: 1) the emperor in Zheng He’s time could not wait to kill his brother’s son who was thought to be taking refuge abroad and becoming a threat to his throne; 2) the emperor intended to avert the invasion of overseas countries, because the empire was occupied battling against the Mongolians in northwestern China; 3) the proud emperor was eager to flaunt his empire’s prosperity; 4) the emperor wanted to promote trade with overseas countries. Nevertheless, none of the above opinions is convincing, because: 1) sending such a large fleet in search of an escaped person is not an effective way; 2) the overseas countries in Zheng He’s time were not strong enough to invade China; 3) did the emperor have to spend his vast fortune on seven epic voyages to flaunt his empire’s prosperity? 4) if the emperor attempted to promote trade with overseas countries, why didn’t the huge ships carry more goods instead of so many people?

The answer is likely to remain a mystery.  Many of the documents about Zheng He and his voyages preserved in the imperial palace were found to have been destroyed when one of the later emperors of the Ming dynasty attempted to discover more about Zheng He.

The Treasure Ship Model (1:1)
The Treasure Ship Model (1:1), by Di Lu.

Zheng He’s hometown was Kunming, but his followers buried him in Nanjing. He would never have thought of the fact that bronze statue of him is sited at the place where he began his life at sea, although the area of the Relics Park is approximately only one fifth of the area of the original shipyard, covering an area of 130,000 square meters. As one passes through the10.82-meter high and 16.52-meter wide decorated archway, the Zheng He Bronze Bell comes into his sight. The huge bell is placed at the centre of the Museum square in memory of Zheng He, standing 1.6 meters and weighing 650 kilograms. In front of the square lay three extant shipbuilding docks, whilst on the left and the right sides of the square, there are the Unearthed Relics Museum and the Watch Station respectively.

According to archaeological reports, the shipbuilding docks were 421 meters in length, 41 meters in width, and 6 meters in depth. During Zheng He’s time, when work on a ship had been completed, the sluice gate would be opened in order to allow the water in Yangtze River (the third-longest river in the world) to flood in. Then, the ship would be gradually lifted up and pulled away from the dock. By studying the historical records as well as the unearthed remains of the ships, it is estimated that the largest ships built in this site were about 125 meters in length, 51 meters in width, and 12 meters in depth, displacing 17,708 tons. Such a huge ship was believed to be capable of holding over 1000 people. To avoid sinking, the space under the deck was separated into over ten airtight sections by thick wooden boards; to survive collisions, the deck and the bottom of the ship were designed to be as thick as 38 and 34 centimetres respectively; to guarantee the daylighting, the wood window grilles were inlaid with mussel shells polished to 0.1 millimetre in thickness; to ensure quality, each piece of wood was carved with the principal’s name and the time when it was transported here.

Seafaring enterprise declined in the East, and only later on did explorers such as Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama Ferdinand Magellan pioneer the navigation and expedition from the West. To some extent, the Treasure Shipyard Relics Park not only provides a place to review the ancient Chinese maritime enterprise, but also stimulates us to rethink the relationship between national policies and the development of science and technology in history.

Further information:

 Louise Levalhes, When China Ruled the Seas——The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Thorne 1405-1433 (Oxford University Press, 1994).

Gavin Menzies, 1421: The Year China Discovered the World (Bantam Press, 2002).



Royal Observatory Greenwich, London

By Rebekah Higgitt

Aerial photography of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich
Aerial photography of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. © National Maritime Museum.

The Royal Observatory Greenwich (ROG) is part of Royal Museums Greenwich, also comprising the National Maritime Museum (NMM), The Queen’s House and Cutty Sark. Each reveals the royal and maritime influences on Greenwich, and each has elements of interest to historians of science. The buildings, dating from the 17th to 19th centuries, with many more recent additions and alterations, border and are contained within a Royal Park and the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site.

The science associated with Greenwich was very largely done for maritime purposes. It was practical, utilitarian and concerned with precision, accuracy and standards rather than the production of new knowledge. Few scientific discoveries can be associated with the Observatory, but its importance to the history of astronomy, timekeeping, navigation and cartography is demonstrated by the fact that, ultimately, the world’s standard reference point for time and position – the Prime Meridian – came to be the meridian on which the ROG’s chief instrument was set.

The Royal Observatory was founded in 1675 with the remit of improving astronomical tables in order to aid maritime navigation, specifically to support the lunar distance method for finding longitude (east-west position). Predicting the motions of the moon turned out to be an even harder problem than anticipated, and it was not until the 1760s that the ROG fulfilled its remit, when observations began to feed into the Nautical Almanac.

A complementary method of finding longitude at sea, using a timekeeper that could keep time at a regular rate over the course of a long voyage, matured at the same time. Once sea watches, or chronometers, became sufficiently numerous and affordable, the Astronomer Royal was charged with testing, rating and distributing them for the Royal Navy. Thus both the astronomical and timekeeping methods of finding longitude were supported by the work of the Observatory.

The ROG was a leading institution in the development of precision, meridian astronomy. The Astronomers Royal commissioned London’s top instrument and clock makers, the Observatory’s equipment and routines were hugely influential and its output was generally accepted as the most thorough and reliable. The work of John Flamsteed, James Bradley and Nevil Maskelyne was seen as core to Britain’s reputation in practical astronomy.

In the 19th century work at the ROG began to diversify. Magnetic and meteorological observations were begun, the distribution of time for civilian purposes became increasingly important and new techniques, particularly photography and spectroscopy, were introduced. Despite some new research, Greenwich largely focused on providing services for navigation and astronomy and on long-term programmes of data collection.

The buildings of the ROG, much extended and altered over the years, reveal this history. The oldest is Flamsteed House, the first floor and basement of which was home to the Astronomers Royal and their families until the institution moved to Herstmonceux in Sussex after the Second World War. On the first floor is the Octagon Room, built to house and test the going of Thomas Tompion’s experimental clocks, but thereafter largely used for storage and as a meeting room.

The real observatory was the series of buildings that housed the meridian instruments. Flamsteed’s original meridian observatory, which housed his mural arc, was built over several times, so the series of buildings that exists today is that begun by Bradley in the 1740s to house the quadrants, transit telescope, clocks and assistant astronomer. These buildings were extended several times as new instruments and additional work space was required. Some additions were removed when the Observatory was transformed into a Museum in the 1960s.

Greenwich Observatory
Greenwich Observatory by heatheronhertravels. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Many of the original instruments of the Observatory survive and have been set up largely in their original locations, providing a timeline toward the Airy Transit Circle (1851), which defined the international Prime Meridian.

Adjoining the meridian buildings is the Great Equatorial Building (1857), today housing the second of the two large equatorial telescopes that were mounted there in the 19th century. It marks a clear development of the Observatory’s work away from an exclusive focus on meridian astronomy. Below the telescope are rooms in which the Navy’s chronometers were tested and stored. Today they contain the office and workshop (visible through a glass wall) of the Museum’s horologists.

The Observatory’s site continues southwards from here, towards an area added in the 1830s. Until the end of the century, this contained the Magnetic Observatory, which was later moved out into an enclosure within Greenwich Park and, in the 1920s, to Abinger. The buildings that remain date from the 1890s: the Altazimuth Pavilion, originally containing an altazimuth telescope, and the South Building. Originally called the New Physical Observatory, this housed three large telescopes, darkrooms, record and instrument stores, workshop and the office space for a much enlarged staff.

Today, the displays at the ROG fall into three categories. Firstly, the Astronomer’s Apartments and the Octagon Room in Flamsteed House have been dressed to suggest their original 17th-century appearance, while the Meridian Building displays the remounted 18th- and 19th-century instruments. Secondly, there are galleries that focus on the history of timekeeping: the story of longitude, the Navy’s chronometers, the dissemination of Greenwich Mean Time, and personal timekeeping. Thirdly, the South Building houses galleries dedicated to interactive exhibits and modern astronomy and adjoins a purpose-built planetarium.

As well as many of the Observatory’s original instruments, the ROG’s displays benefit from astronomical, navigational and cartographic collections acquired by the NMM from the 1930s onward. Descriptions of all objects and artworks in the collections are available online. The archives of the ROG itself are now held at Cambridge (which is where the institution ended up before its closure in 1998) but the Museum’s Caird Library and Archive contain relevant books and manuscripts, including the Airy Collection of rare books formerly belonging to the Observatory.

Further reading

A brief introduction to the history of the ROG can be found on its website, but the most thorough history is the three volumes by Eric G. Forbes, A. J. Meadows and Derek Howse: Greenwich Observatory. Howse is also author of the very useful Greenwich Time and Longitude. For an illustrated snapshot of what the Observatory was like at the end of the 19th century see E. Walter Maunder’s The Royal Observatory, Greenwich: a Glance at its History and Work.

There are four important catalogues showcasing some of the most significant scientific instrument collections: Astrolabes, Sundials, Globes and Sextants. A fifth, dedicated to Chronometers, is in progress.

Marine Biological Association, Plymouth, England

By Anne-Flore Laloë

The Citadel Hill Laboratory of the Marine Biological Association, Plymouth Hoe

The Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom (MBA) is a British learned society which works in the field of the marine biological sciences. It was founded in 1884; its original objectives were to gain a better understanding of fish populations, especially in relation to fishing and fears of over-exploitation of the seas, and to study the physiology of invertebrate animals. The MBA’s first President was Thomas H. Huxley, and E. Ray Lankester acted at the Association’s Honorary Secretary. Today, the MBA’s objectives have been widened and the Association more generally seeks to “promote scientific research into all aspects of life in the sea, including the environment on which it depends, and to disseminate to the public the knowledge gained.”

The MBA opened in 1888 on Plymouth Hoe, where it is still located in the original Laboratory, though the building has been expanded and modernized. The choice of location for the MBA was very important, as one of the Laboratory’s requirements was to be able to pump sea-water. This was achieved via a well which is situated on the Hoe’s foreshore, beneath the Laboratory. From the beginning, the MBA opened its tank rooms to the public and it continued to do so until 1998, when the collection was transferred to the new National Marine Aquarium nearby.

Scientific staff at the MBA have always been at the forefront of the study of the marine environment. Alongside resident scientific staff, the MBA has always hosted and collaborated with visiting researchers. Seven Nobel laureates have conducted research there, in fields including medicine, physiology and chemistry. The MBA’s current research programme includes work on cell physiology, behavioural ecology, climate change and marine diversity. The MBA works with many national and international universities to train the next generation of marine biologists and support the marine biological community.

The MBA has published a scientific journal, the Journal of the Marine Biological Association, since 1887. In its current format, this is a peer-reviewed, international science journal covering all aspects of marine biology.

The MBA is the custodian of the collections of the National Marine Biological Library (NMBL), which was founded in 1887 to support the research work of the Association. Today, the NMBL is constituted of the MBA’s library and archive collections, and its staff provide information services to support research. The collections are one of the world’s largest in the field; they comprise an up-to-date selection of books and journals, and a sizeable historical collection which includes expedition reports from all over the world, old books (dating back to 1554), conference proceedings and the personal libraries of several past MBA researchers. The library also holds long runs of periodicals and grey literature from all over the world. The MBA Archive Collection constitutes a unique resource which documents not only the MBA’s institutional history, but also the evolution of the marine biological sciences in Great Britain and beyond. Items in the archives include personal papers and letters, documents, photographs, drawings, lantern slides and microscope slides.

The MBA also has a collection of scientific instruments and objects. The collection includes one of only five extant Levin-Wyman ergometers (invented at the MBA) which measure work done by muscles, and a sledge, skis poles and an ice axe used by MBA biologist E. W. Nelson on the 1910-1913 British Antarctic Expedition (Terra Nova). These instruments and objects can often be linked to specific scientific research or MBA researchers, and to material held in the MBA Archive Collection. The history of the objects and the science which they enabled is significant within the context of the history of marine biology and biological sciences more generally.

Contact details:

The Marine Biological Association of the UK
The Laboratory
Citadel Hill
Plymouth PL1 2PB

T: 01752 633 207
W: www.mba.ac.uk
E: sec@mba.ac.uk

The NMBL is located at the same address, and its website is www.mba.ac.uk/nmbl. To contact the NMBL directly, please call 01752 633 266 or email nmbl@mba.ac.uk.

How to visit:

The MBA is primarily a membership organisation, and access to the NMBL is a benefit of membership. Alternatively, one-off access can be specially arranged through the MBA Membership Secretary (membership@mba.ac.uk). Please see here for further information: http://www.mba.ac.uk/NMBL/about_us/services.htm.

From Plymouth’s mainline station or the city centre, follow signs to Plymouth Hoe. The MBA is located on the eastern side of the Hoe, near the Royal Citadel.

Further reading:

Allen, E.J. and Harvey, H.W. (1928) “The Laboratory of The Marine Biological Association at Plymouth.” Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 15 (3): 735-752. (Available for download here: <http://sabella.mba.ac.uk/603/01/The_laboratory_of_The_Marine_Biological_Association_at_Plymouth.pdf)

Heape, W. (1887) “Description of the laboratory of the Marine Biological Association at Plymouth.” Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 1 (Old Series): 96-104. (Available for download here: http://sabella.mba.ac.uk/285/01/Description_of_the_laboratory_of_the_Marine_Biological_Association_at_Plymouth.pdf)

Southward, A.J. and Roberts, E.K. (1984)”The Marine Biological Association 1884-1984: One hundred years of marine research” Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, 116: 155-199. (This article was also published as an Occasional Publication of the MBA and is available here: http://www.mba.ac.uk/NMBL/publications/occpub/occasionalpub3.htm.)

Note: Revised article by Anne-Flore Laloe. Original article by Joan Price.

Met Office, Exeter, England

By Joan Price

Panorama of the new UKMO building in Exeter, taken 8 February 2005

The British Meteorological Office was originally set up under Robert Fitzroy, ex-captain of HMS Beagle, as a service to mariners. After a disastrous storm in 1859 he established a network of fifteen coastal stations which gave warnings of approaching storms, and this eventually led to the daily shipping forecast. Developments in electric telegraphy and the expansion of the observational network meant that regular weather forecasts could be provided for the general public. Their most crucial forecast was that for D-Day. Weather forecasts still play a vital role in the success of military operations and provide essential information for the RAF and so the Met Office is an executive agency of the Ministry of Defence. More recently it has started to give warnings about weather conditions which may affect people’s health and uses Doppler radar to warn of the likelihood of floods. In 2003 the Met Office moved from Bracknell to Exeter, where the Hadley Centre is devoted to climate prediction and research. A network of official climate stations 40km apart continues to provide daily observations.

The Met Office headquarters contain a library, open to everyone, and a display of meteorological equipment. Half a mile away, the National Meteorological Archive shares premises with the Devon Record Office. It holds a number of rare books on meteorology on behalf of the Royal Meteorological Society. These include a 1282 manuscript of Albert Magnus’ book De Negotio Naturali, a sixteenth century copy of Aristotle’s Meteorologica, some of Robert Boyle’s published work and Daniel Defoe’s description of the Great Storm of 1703. Their archive includes many private weather diaries made by enthusiastic amateurs, dating back to 1730 as well as descriptions and illustrations of extreme weather conditions, including ball lightning.

The main entrance to the Exeter Met Office

They have numerous weather logs made by both merchant and naval ships all over the world. These include Beaufort’s first use of the wind scale now bearing his name, and some from historic voyages to the Antarctic. They hold a great many climate returns and registers of meteorological observations as well as autographic records for approximately 1,000 sites dating back to the mid-nineteenth century. They also have a selection of historic images featuring old equipment, observers and observation sites. The archive can be used by academics and members of the public but it is advisable to book in advance and read fact sheet 12 on their website (see below).

Directions: Their headquarters are close to Junction 29 of the M5 as it passes Exeter. Come off the motorway and drive in the direction of the City Centre. Almost immediately you will soon see directions to turn right at a set of traffic lights. To visit the archives turn left at the same traffic lights in the direction of Sowton Industrial Estate. Take the first turning right into Kestrel Way and keep turning right until you reach Great Moor House. Exeter St David’s mainline train station is on the opposite side of the city and although the journey can be done by taking two buses, it will take more than half an hour.

Further information

Website: Met Office – National Meteorological Archive

Met Office Factsheet: 12. National Meteorological Archive [pdf, 3Mb].
Description: In April 1914, at a meeting of the Meteorological Committee, the Met Office, then called The Meteorological Office, accepted responsibility of custodian of appropriate Public Records. To this day the archive remains part of the Met Office.

Address: FitzRoy Road, Exeter, Devon EX1 3PB, UK

Archive address: Great Moor House, Bittern Road, Exeter EX2 7NL, UK

Devon Record Office, England

By Nicole-Kerstin Baur

Front of Great Moor House, home of the Devon Record Office
Front of Great Moor House, home of the Devon Record Office

Bringing History to Life at the Devon Record Office

Whether you want to uncover your family’s history, find information about a place or institution or you are researching a particular historical subject related to Devon, the Devon Record Office (DRO) will provide you with relevant paper documents and electronic guides. The DRO also holds a considerable number of documents related to the sciences of health and weather.

Searchroom of the DRO
Searchroom of the DRO

The Devon Record Office, as the record-keeping department of Devon County Council, was founded in 1952 and incorporates the Exeter City Record Office, which had been collecting records from all areas of Devon since 1946, when it took over from the Exeter City Library, where records had been collected from the early 20th century. The Devon Record Office now collects and preserves all types of historical records relating to the county of Devon, the city of Exeter, and East, Mid and South Devon, including Torbay. These include the records of the parishes, and of innumerable individuals, families, estates, businesses, societies, chapels and schools. It is also the diocesan record office for the Diocese of Exeter. Public records including those of the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital (from 1743), the West of England Eye Infirmary (from 1808), and the County Gaol (from 1821) are also available to searchers. All documents are kept in specially constructed strongrooms, and public access is provided in the main searchroom.

The DRO provides a wide range of electronic search facilities, including 29 microfiche readers and eight microfilm readers. Additional searchroom computer facilities provide access to specific online archives and library catalogues, including the office’s own online catalogue. The searchroom is open to the public five days a week from 10:00 am to 06:00 pm, and parking is available.

Strongroom of the DRO
Strongroom of the DRO

Have you ever wondered what weather reporters mean when they say it has been the wettest, or driest, or warmest month since records began? Those records are also housed in a separate part of the DRO: the National Meteorological Archive (NMA). The NMA holds the official British daily weather reports from when they began in 1869, although earlier, personal and local records – from land and sea-voyages – are also included in the collection. In conjunction with the Royal Meteorological Society, the NMA also contains historic writings on the weather including those of Aristotle and the early-modern century natural philosophers Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle.

The NMA is open to all but you must make an appointment first.

Further information

Address: Devon Record Office, Great Moor House, Bittern Road, Sowton, Exeter, Devon EX2 7NL
Tel: +44 (0)1392 384253
Fax: +44 (0)1392 384256
Website: www.devon.gov.uk/record_office
Email: devrec@devon.gov.uk

National Meteorological Archive website: http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/learning/library/archive

Marine Biological Association, Plymouth, England

By Joan Price

Out of date

This article has been superseded by a more up-to-date version at http://www.bshs.org.uk/travel-guide/marine-biological-association-plymouth-england

The Citadel Hill Laboratory of the Marine Biological Association, Plymouth Hoe

The Marine Biological Association is one of the oldest learned institutions west of Bristol. Its laboratories are tucked away in a corner of the Royal Citadel on the eastern end of Plymouth Hoe. Founded in 1884, the MBA is one of the UK’s leading research institutes. Its building has spectacular views of Plymouth Sound and shares many features with the even more illustrious laboratory in Naples. The association was set up to study living marine live, both out of scientific interest and to learn about habits and population of fished fish. Much of the latter work has gone to other laboratories. Their aquarium is now part of the nearby National Marine Aquarium, which is a big visitor attraction. In addition to their own work, the laboratories always attract visiting research workers, including 13 Nobel Prize winners and 170 Fellows of the Royal Society. Some of these come from other disciplines, particularly physiology. From its inception, the association has always been forward thinking: providing Easter courses for university students, offering members one week’s laboratory space per annum free, and employing some early women scientists. In 1967 their work was focussed on the Torrey Canyon oil spill. They have monitored pollution and plankton for many years and have always had a research vessel.

Their library is probably the most complete in this country in its coverage of marine biology and oceanography. As well as academic journals and special collections, it also contains the personal libraries of several eminent members. Visiting research workers have donated bound reprints of their work. As a result their earliest book in the library dates from 1554, they have a complete set of Nature and their records of the British Association go back to 1864. They have many bound volumes of many expedition reports, including some to the Antarctic and others covering the marine biology of specific areas of the world. They also hold considerable quantities of ‘grey’ papers, which have not been published.

The NMBL also has a large amount of archival material which is on a database and has been catalogued in three sections:

  • Institutional papers of the MBA and the Plymouth Laboratory
  • Personal and scientific documents of 50 staff and researchers with close links
  • The correspondence of E.T.Browne from 1892-1937- for its intrinsic interest and to test the ability of the database.

Their material includes watercolours, early and aerial photographs, coloured glass slides and charts. Most interest is in their early fish records and their long term monitoring.

Directions: Please contact the librarian before a visit if you are not already a member. Membership of the MBA cost from £30 /annum. A pedestrian walkway leads from Plymouth’s mainline station to the Hoe. If travelling by road, follow signs to the City Centre until you see signs for Plymouth Hoe. Drive up past the Citadel and the entrance road is on the left just as you see the sea.

Further information

Website: National Marine Biological Library (NMBL)

Address: The Laboratory, Citadel Hill, PLYMOUTH PL1 2PB United Kingdom

The Jurassic Coast, South England

By Hugh Torrens

Winspit Cove, Dorset

This article has been adapted from Hugh Torrens, ‘The Long history of geological studies in Dorset confirms its World Heritage Coast status’, OUGS Journal 25 (2), 2004, pp. 1-16, by kind permission of the author.

The coastline of Dorset and East Devon has fascinated students of nature since the birth of modern science in England some 350 years ago. With its beautiful sea coast and rocky outcrops, yielding many fossils, it has given both aesthetic and scholarly pleasure to residents and visitors. Motives for studying the coastline, now dubbed the ‘Jurassic Coast’ have varied from the gentlemanly to the industrial, from the amateur to the specialist, and from the commercial to the scholarly.

One long-running theme has been industrial – and futile: the search for coal. During the early period of the industrial revolution, an incoming vicar to the area – William Sharpe – determined that local coal would be the solution to the ague endemic amongst his parishioners, by providing them with warmer homes. Sharpe’s Treatise Upon Coal Mines (1769) suggested geological clues for coal-hunters and inspired numerous local attempts at prospecting, long after William Smith’s Geological Map (1815) showed that there was no coal to be found. Needless to say these attempts all failed, many expensively.

Durdle Door II

A second theme has of course been the discovery of fossils. The botanist John Ray noted in 1673 that ‘Lyme in Dorsetshire’ was one of the key places in England ‘which afford plenty of … petrified shells’. One generation later, the Weymouth customs officer and mariner William Hobbs wrote a manuscript of his personal studies of local rocks. Unpublished in his day, it has since been rediscovered and reveals an interestingly non-Noachian view of geology. Hobbs argued that the fossils about the coast had not been placed there by the Biblical flood but had been embedded in rocks on the sea floor and gradually raised up to their present position by ‘pulsations from the centre of the earth’. His conclusions differed from those of John Woodward, a believer in the Flood who had also recently collected fossils in Dorset.

Jurassic Gargoyle, Dorset

During the nineteenth century, several well-known geological savants patronised the Dorset area: William Buckland, Henry de la Beche and William Conybeare chief amongst them. However, the collector of fossils on the Jurassic Coast who is best known today is almost certainly Mary Anning (1799-1847). Anning picked amongst the rocks around Lyme Regis in the hopes of selling them and thus saving her family from the poorhouse. She found the world’s first complete Plesiosaurus in 1823 and the UK’s first Pterodactyl some five years later. Anning’s collecting – which despite her best efforts ended in financial disaster – helped to spawn a veritable Dino-mania amongst the Victorians. Ever since then the Jurassic coast has swarmed with professional palaeontologists and small children alike, hoping to find a fossil of their own.

Rich in both history and science, these 95 miles of wonderful coastline were granted World Heritage Status in 2001, the first British site to gain the honour. An excellent website (link below) gives details of travel, accommodation, science, history and events in the area – everything the visitor could hope for.

Further information:


Deborah Cadbury, The Dinosaur Hunters: A True Story of Scientific Rivalry and the Discovery of the Prehistoric World (HarperCollins, 2001). For a general audience.

Martin Rudwick, The Great Devonian Controversy: The Shaping of Scientific Knowledge among Gentlemanly Specialists (Chicago, 1985) … and many more by the same author. For an academic audience.

Hugh Torrens, book on Mary Anning (forthcoming as of 2011)

William Denny & Brothers Test Tank, Dumbarton, Scotland

By Don Leggett

Few buildings along the famous River Clyde region of Scotland figure as importantly to the history of shipbuilding, naval science and the British maritime empire than the small and innocuous brick structure that holds the Denny test tank: the world’s first commercial tank (or model basin).

The Denny tank, opened in 1884, was only the second of its kind, built on specifications provided by William Froude, an Oxford-trained mathematician and one-time collaborator with Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Froude designed the first private test tank to provide the British Admiralty with an accurate guide to how full-sized ships would perform at sea.

Well into even the twentieth century, shipbuilders continued to rely on the untrained eye, craft practice and a series of fairly arbitrary calculations to work out the optimum hull shape for ships of all varieties. Froude posited, and then demonstrated, that twelve-foot long model hulls propelled by railway carriage in a water tank 300 meters long would more accurately represent the behaviour of the same said design at sea.

The 300 metre long Denny tank at Dumbarton
The 300 metre long Denny tank at Dumbarton

The British shipbuilding industry was largely unconvinced of the benefits to be derived from Froude’s work, but he did find an influential supporter in the shipbuilder William Denny (whose firm built such ships as the King Edward, the first commercial vessel driven by Charles Parsons steam turbines). In a competitive business community where shipbuilders bid for contracts, accurately estimating ship speed and performance could provide a significant advantage.

William Denny (1847-1887) led his firm through a series of major shipbuilding reforms based on the use of experiments and rigorous sea trials to develop a working knowledge of efficient hull shapes. He instigated the practice of progressive trials to examine the relationship between engine power, speed and hull resistance in different ships; in the mid-1870s he began to closely work with Froude on the analysis of hull resistance; and in 1884 he finished work overseeing the construction of the test tank. He would later write of his firm’s approach to shipbuilding:

A quick and all-round approximation of any new proposal is the only platform from which a professional man can safely start; and it, again, can only be the outcome of years of laborious investigation, and observation, and experiment. The bulk of our brother-ship-builders, and I suspect pretty nearly all your men, don’t yet understand the meaning of this.

Today model testing remains a key part of shipbuilding practice, complimenting computer modelling. The machinery on display at the Dumbarton test tank (now part of the Scottish Maritime Museum) covers a wide chronology, but the museum displays have been presented as ‘Victorian’, complete with mannequin invisible technicians undertaking detailed study of ship curves and test tank measurements – while also moonlighting as night guards to the tank archives stored within the displays.

'Victorian' museum display complete with mannequin invisible technicians
'Victorian' museum display complete with mannequin invisible technicians

Dumbarton is a little over ten miles west of Glasgow. The frequent train service is recommended as it passes alongside the River Clyde, the birthplace of much of Britain’s former maritime empire.

For further details on visiting the tank visit the Scottish Maritime Museum website see http://scottishmaritimemuseum.org/dumbarton.html.